In 1994, a black-and-white indie film about a group of lesbians in Chicago, and their attempts to make sense of love and relationships, gave voice to a little-heard minority. It was a film that sparked off a wave of queer cinema. The writer and director of Go Fish, Rose Troche, went on to become an important voice in the American queer movement. She has written for American television series like The L Word and Ugly Betty, besides making independent films on alternate sexuality. She turned producer last year for Stacie Passon’s Concussion. In India earlier this month as a mentor at the recent Mumbai Mantra Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, the 50-year-old writer-director of Puerto Rican descent spoke about the politicisation of homosexuality, the movement that gave birth to queer cinema in the US and how indie cinema is the way forward for the genre. Excerpts:
Same-gender sex was recriminalised a few months ago in India. What were your thoughts before visiting the country?
I did consider if I should visit India at all because I principally oppose the judicial move, but not coming shouldn’t be the position. To blame homosexuals for ruining society is a politically-driven stance. Russia has set a precedent for that. The laws there encourage discrimination and witch-hunting of the queer. It’s a distraction from whatever [President] Vladimir Putin is doing at the administrative level. When people suffer from sheer hopelessness, it fuels violence. By aiding discrimination against homosexuals, he’s giving people someone to beat up.
You made Go Fish in the 1990s. How was the mood in the US then?
Go Fish turns 20 this year. We were 10 years into the AIDS crisis. Homophobia was prevalent because AIDS was being dubbed as ‘gay cancer’. Sometimes, the most beautiful thing to come out of a crisis is people’s decision to fight back. Go Fish came out of that. The movement grew to be a powerful one. Things have shifted and changed since. By the time The L Word, a fictional TV series with queer characters I co-wrote, went on air in 2004, we were already dealing with the feeling that lesbians can be pretty, fashionable and vapid like straight women. The movement became more about aesthetics, although visibility is still an issue.
How do you view Go Fish now?
I try not to view it. (Laughs) It’s a mess. Which is why we wanted to make a sequel. But we cannot, we don’t own the rights to the film. We’re trying to do a 20th anniversary edition. Guin (Guinevere Turner), whom I wrote the film with and who played one of the key characters, wanted to call the sequel ‘Go F*** Yourself’. She wanted to do a ‘20 years later’, when everyone’s bitter and cynical. I wanted it to be in keeping with the first, more hopeful, although not saccharine. No denying that it’s a successful film. And I am proud that it helped many new filmmakers by making them feel, ‘Okay, if this movie can make it, so will mine.’ But it’s very difficult to watch the film now. VS Brodie, Guen and I tried to do that over wine 11 years after its release, and we realised it is very average.
Your views on sexuality seem to have evolved since Go Fish.
I am older now, so yes. From around the time my second film, Bedrooms and Hallways (1998), was being made, I have believed sexuality should be far more fluid in terms of one’s sexual preference. My next, Wendy Drinks Beer for Breakfast, is about a woman with fluid sexuality. It’s another movie where we were exploring the questions we did in Stacie Passon’s Concussion, which I produced (the film’s about a lesbian woman who secretly takes to prostitution after her sex life fizzles out with her partner of many years). Clearly, the traditional model of marriage doesn’t work. If it were a business, nobody would invest in it anymore, given it’s 10 per cent success ratio. How will the model change? I truly believe that if we are more content, we give more to the world.
How easy is it today to get funding for films that address issues of sexuality?
Twenty years ago, we were making movies for no money. And now we are doing that again. There was a stretch of time in between when every big studio had an indie arm, and then they all shut down. Now it feels we’re once again finding a way of making films, discovering alternate ways of distribution, staking claim on the content of our films. So, yes, there is funding, but only enough to support a small, niche film. Unless it’s a Brokeback Mountain, where straight actors will play gay people and a straight director will helm it.
You feel an outsider cannot quite do justice to a minority in a film?
I asked myself that recently, when I made a short film on transgenders. I wondered if I should be making this film. Should the voice come from inside the community, when they are marginalised to that extent? I don’t know how to answer that question. There’s a big difference between Boys Don’t Cry and Monster…I wish a gay filmmaker could make a
gay film and win an Academy Award or make money.
Is it the studio decision to let the straight make films on the queer?
Awards are given to those who stretch themselves for a role. The more you become someone you’re not, the more people will fawn over you. When Charlize Theron put a fake nose for Monster, people felt she is so much prettier otherwise, which makes her worthy of an Oscar. I am not taking away from what other artistes have done, but the fact is no one wants to watch Rosie O’ Donnell playing the lead in Monster. She’s gay already, so where’s the stretch? But I believe that most of the pathbreaking gay and lesbian films will come from the indie scene, which is why it needs support. In fact, not just sexuality, the best films on race, class and gender too will emerge from here.
Has the internet made things easier?
Yes and no. It offers an alternate way of distribution but it also makes us feel that things can be had for free. So people pirate content but don’t pay up those five dollars. The budget at which indie filmmakers make films, every penny counts. Earlier, we used to make films and someone used to pay us to do that. Now, we make films, we also pay for them, and a distributor may or may not buy it for as much as we spent on it. We’re constantly in the negative, and constantly begging. Crowdfunding’s the latest way and we’re the new beggars.
When making a film, how do you deal with the idea that people will come in to watch the sex?
Part of you knows that. I look at a very recent critically acclaimed film and I see it as a film with sex scenes in almost every frame with no character development by the end of it. It’s all probably to get more audience. What’s interesting about Concussion, in contrast, is that people will call it sexual but the most intimate scene is only kissing.
At the same time, I don’t mind it if people want to watch more sex; I’ve used it too, to please the audience. While writing The L Word, I’d get emails asking for more sex scenes. But I feel I’ve done my job when I offer them a little more heft than just nudity. When I get mails from girls, who say they felt alone till the show came along, I feel I’ve done something right. n